The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections put fake news firmly in the public’s consciousness.
But while the fake news phenomenon took many by surprise, those working in politics must have recognised that its forerunners – spin and smoke and mirrors – have long been around.
The difference now is that the rise of social media and search engine algorithms means false stories can now spread faster than ever and have a far wider impact with voters and consumers far beyond the Westminster and Washington villages. As communicators, it’s important we are aware of this, and the risk it poses to brands and organisations.
To explore this further I recently hosted an event on behalf of WIPR at Teneo Blue Rubicon for members to debate if we’re living in a post-truth age where lies always win or whether truth can still triumph?
The event brought together a panel of experts from across the industry, including:
- Isabel Oakeshott, political journalist, broadcaster and 2011 British Press Awards Political Journalist of the Year.
- Mark Pack, Associate Director at Teneo Blue Rubicon and co-author of political advice guide 101 Ways To Win An Election.
- Jane Hadden, Managing Director at Teneo Blue Rubicon. Jane is a former broadcast journalist at the BBC, working for ten years both as a reporter and a senior programme producer.
Here are five insights from the panel which will help readers decide whether fake news really is a threat to democracy or something people will learn to recognise and tune out.
- Fake news isn’t a new thing. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1807 (clearly before women consumed media!): “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.”
- Fake news isn’t always the only reason why people vote one way or another. The Vote Leave figure of £350m being sent to the EU every week during the Brexit campaign was over-stated by some £100m. The bigger issue, however, was that the Remain campaign lacked the arguments to counter this.
- More concerning is that fake news is fuelling distrust in mainstream media institutions. In fact, the latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found a third of people don’t rely on the news to be true. We then become more reliant on our own echo chambers on social media.
- Most media houses’ business models won’t be able to afford an army of fact checkers. It’s clear that we all need to work to educate the public to become better able to spot fake news. Fake news didn’t dominate last month’s General Election so perhaps progress is being made.
- It is not enough to rebut fake news by saying it is wrong. Brands and politicians must replace it with compelling stories, powerfully told, robustly evidenced.
So as communicators what role do we need to play? There will never be a substitute for great story telling. Our opportunity is to lead by example with such good genuine stories that we curb the demand for falsehoods in the first place.
It’s also our opportunity to celebrate and embrace the zeitgeist that is creating such a fertile breeding ground for fake news, truth and terrific content alike. Engagement in media, especially digital and social channels, is unprecedented. This was on my mind as I left the panel session. As communicators we can and should embrace the truth and also embrace the interest and curiosity consumers have now in news of all kinds. There is a glass half full in my world.